A federally funded program that provides free fuel oil and other heating help to low-income households throughout New York is in a heap of trouble. Known as the New York State Home Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP, the program is being chilled by a lack of federal funding.
Last season, the state received $549 million in federal funding for HEAP. This year, that’s down by more than half — 62 percent, in fact — to $207 million, according to Gregory Blass, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services.
The number, which Mr. Blass said is 75 percent of what the federal government promised New York in HEAP aid this heating season, should go up a bit. He said he expected that the state will see another $70 million through the heating season, as well as an additional $59 million in contingency funds from the feds, bringing the total to $336 million in HEAP aid for the 2010-11 winter. But that’s still 38 percent less than last season.
Those cold-hard numbers are especially bad news considering the number of those in need of HEAP aid is rising even as funding shrinks, Mr. Blass said.
Roughly 44,000 Suffolk County residents applied for HEAP last season. Mr. Blass said it was impossible to calculate a total for this year because there are more people who would not normally look for help and applications are rapidly on the rise.
“It’s just spiraling out of control,” Mr. Blass said. “People who think the recession is over should look at the lines in our offices.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “This is the same difficulty we’re having with not enough shelters for people who are homeless. It’s the same frustration at not having sufficient supplies in our food pantries. We’re just having a very serious strain on limited resources.”
The current season’s HEAP aid will likely last only until February and that’s only if the state receives all the money from the feds for HEAP, according to Mr. Blass.
Locally, there is a glimmer of warmth amid the chilling news about HEAP. Linda Ortiz, director of Community Action of Southold Town, which helps hundreds of low-income people in crisis each year, said several North Fork oil delivery companies are helping local residents facing hard times.
Burt’s Reliable and Falkowski-Smith Plumbing, Heating and Fuels, both in Southold, as well as Hands Fuel Company in Orient have donated fuel oil and services, according to Ms. Ortiz.
John Romanelli, president of Burt’s Reliable, said it’s all about being a good neighbor.
“It’s a small community and in years past I’ve had local customers of mine donate money and oil to CAST to help pay for deliveries in the wintertime,” Mr. Romanelli said. “How much we donate varies from year to year. One year we had a very generous customer donate a thousand gallons and we matched him along the way — for every 100 gallons he put in, we put in 100 gallons. It’s just what this community does.”
HEAP was created in 1981 after the federal government consolidated a number of temporary energy assistance programs that were set up because of an oil embargo at the time by OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. The embargo led to fuel shortages and spiking prices.
Now, under the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, the federal government annually allocates funds on a state-by-state basis to assist eligible households. To qualify for HEAP, applicants must have an income below a specified maximum.
For example, a single individual cannot make more than $2,129 a month to qualify. A household of four cannot make more than $4,049 a month, while a family of 10 must make less than $5,896.
The program usually makes payments directly to the client’s utility company. Because the HEAP program provides support on a first-come, first-served basis, it’s important to apply as early as possible, because some states provide no further support once federal funding has run out, noted Suffolk County Legislator Edward Romaine.
“Here’s the problem with HEAP,” Mr. Romaine said. “Lots of people qualify, but there’s a limited amount money, so the fact that you qualify doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.”
People looking to receive HEAP benefits must apply for the program each year. To apply for a benefit, residents must go in person to the county Department of Social Services office in Riverhead.
Those who receive food stamps, temporary assistance or supplemental security income are also eligible for HEAP aid. People living in government subsidized housing or a group home setting with heat included in their rent are also eligible.
HEAP benefits are broken down into two categories: regular and emergency. Under the HEAP regular benefit, low-income New Yorkers are assisted with the cost of heating their homes. HEAP emergency benefits help out low-income New Yorkers who are facing a heat or heat-related energy emergency, such as a broken oil or gas burner or severely low home fuel reserves.
Regular HEAP benefits are based on income, the primary heating source and the presence of a household member under age 6, age 60 or older or permanently disabled.
Emergency HEAP benefits are based on income, available resources, the number of household members and the primary fuel type. In order to qualify for emergency HEAP, an applicant’s electric or gas heat has to have been shut off or be scheduled for shut off by a provider.
Both HEAP programs became effective for the winter of 2010-11 on Nov. 1, and thousands of Suffolk County residents have already signed up for the program, according to Mr. Romaine.
Those who have broken heating equipment, are out of fuel or are in danger of running out of fuel also qualify for emergency HEAP aid. Approved applicants can receive up to $600, depending on the nature of the emergency.
HEAP Heating Equipment Repair and Replacement funds are available to help eligible low-income homeowners repair or replace furnaces, boilers and other heating components necessary to keep the home’s primary heating source functional.
Benefit amounts up to $6,000 are based on the actual cost incurred to replace or repair furnaces, boilers and/or other essential heating equipment necessary to keep the primary heating source in the applicant’s home operational.
Among those who have benefited from HEAP aid is Katria Nieves, who ironically makes a living helping people facing tough times. The 25-year-old social worker is an office manager with CAST.
The Mattituck resident, who makes $12.50 an hour, qualified for HEAP aid last year. Ms. Nieves still has a $500 credit from last winter that she can apply this season, so she said she won’t be applying for more HEAP aid. That will give someone else a chance to receive a HEAP of helping, she said.
“I’ve been on my own for a couple of years,” said Ms. Nieves. “To be able to have the HEAP program at my hands is really a great, great, great help.”
To learn more about HEAP, call 853-8820 or the HEAP emergency services hotline at 854-9100 or 866-494-6873. Those who are over age 60 or disabled should contact the Suffolk County Office for the Aging at 853-8326. Applicants can also complete a HEAP pre-screening online at mybenefits.ny.gov/.